Community Labs in Public Libraries

Given their historic role of curating information, libraries have the potential to be key players in combating misinformation, political bias, and other threats to democracy. This research project seeks to support public libraries in their efforts to address misinformation by developing library-based community labs: spaces where patrons can collectively explore pressing social issues. Community labs have become popular across many European countries, where they are used to instigate democratic debate, provide discussion spaces and programming, alleviate community tensions, and promote citizenship and mutual understanding. This project aims to adapt a community lab model for use by public libraries in Washington.

After an initial literature review and conversations between interested libraries and the research team, we will carry out interviews with staff from the 10 participating libraries.The goal of this stage is to develop a more concrete vision for the design of the community labs. Interviews will explore what library programs have been popular in the past, the experiences that librarians and community members have had with misinformation, and what priorities community members might have for the community labs. These interviews will help the research team select two rural libraries as project sites for the development of community labs.

To develop community labs tailored to the needs of the communities, researchers will set up design workshops to bring together library staff and community members to co-develop core elements of the lab. Topics of conversation will include the format of programming, relevant topics that the community would like to see addressed, what would motivate library patrons to engage with the community lab, and more. Using these discussions and a combination of research methods, including pre- and post-surveys, participant observation, qualitative interviews, and storytelling to evaluate the programs to help further refine the community labs.

The two libraries that participate throughout the entire project will come away with their own community labs, which they can choose to sustain long-term. Other libraries throughout Washington will have access to the plans and curriculum produced by the project, so that they can choose to design and implement their own labs.